The Cartographer's Dilema

October 11, 2012

I was in an interview yesterday where I found myself answering questions about my resume. I’ve never had someone examine it so closely yet ask so many substantial questions. It was a good thing I knew what was on there and wasn’t lying about what I’ve done, otherwise I would have looked-a-cheat. The interviewer pointed out one thing that has stuck with me since: “Your objective on your resume is quite vague” - I quickly thought to myself about how absolutely correct he was, and how much that didn’t make sense considering people point out basically exactly what they want in a career in their “Objective” section. That’s why it’s an objective.

This is the word-for-word on my resume: “Objective - Continue to explore the interaction between creative design and objective communication within an open and positive work environment.”

Through answering him, I’ve come to realize how vastly diverse the cartographic world is to me, and while it’s a blessing to my interests, it becomes a burden to my objective. Cartography at one time – when I was just in the introductory class at Madison – was a linear concept to me. There was a geographic phenomena that could be represented in space. To do this, you brought it through some software and made it look pretty on Adobe Illustrator. That was it. Nothing more, nothing less.

From the second I put my toe further into the water, that linear path split apart quickly; found directions I didn’t know existed. As I was learning the basics of cartography, I was learning graphic design. As I was learning how to compile the information and display it, I was beginning to manage my own personal database. I was learning GIS techniques. I unintentionally stumbled into a beginners computer programing class with Python. I was preparing myself to learn the harsh reality of static cartography, which led me to learn interactive cartography. Learning interactive cartography brought me through a jumble of HTML and CSS so I could understand javascript’s relation to the map and web. And that is only the front-end of the rabbit hole. There’s a whole world of database queries and storage management that belittles my confidence when I try to learn it.

This jumble of knowledge – pure confusion – finds itself in my daily activities. Daily. Each and every concept in what I’ve learned in the past year is grounds for a career. But I continue on this struggle towards total domination of geographic information. Understanding it from every angle; how to posses it; how to manipulate it; how to store it; and how to visualize it. Every step in the process is filled with a skill that requires incredible amounts of learning to fully understand its use and capabilities. This leads me to believe that geographic information is my burden. My scarlet letter.

Do cartographers strive to be more than is possible? Sure we can put together a map, but would our efforts be better suited learning a step in the process to a glorious extent and eventually collaborating with others in the chain? I’ve found myself stuck. Looking for the direction in which I find more appealing, while at the same time finding the direction that needs me the most. I can’t continue to put myself down a countless number of paths – our brains are not meant for this.

Bringing you back to the beginning, I found myself answering the question to the interviewer with total honesty. I have no clue what I want to do. As I’ve learned in the past two years, I’ve stepped on many stones that deserve turning. Concepts that are fulfilling in themselves and are calling me to learn them in more depth. My career objective is – what I like to think – optimistically open. The past two years have been a dabbling of large concepts through cartography. Whether or not this was a good answer, it has made me consider my personal goals and if and how I reach them.

Geographic information is the largest dataset. To use it requires understanding from all parts of the world and all parts of the skilled workforce. It is our burden as Cartographers that we are stuck with molding all of these skills into one. Whether we learn them to their fullest extent or just enough to complete the task at hand, I find myself wanting more all the time. This continual desire to learn more, to understand more, is a blessing that many careers cannot offer because of strict niches and grains to follow. As it is a blessing, it’s a burden for our livelihoods. For our careers. We find ourselves stretched too thin. Too far in too many directions. I can only wish to be able to cope with this thinning or choose a direction to completely turn and follow.

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